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You may be surprised to know that trauma (in its many forms which is also separate from chronic stress) is not an uncommon experience, particularly childhood trauma.  According to prominant trauma research, 1 out of every 2 people has experienced at least one traumatic event or circumstance in their childhood (Felitti et al., 1998). Trauma, which comes from the Greek word wound, can have a profound positive or negative impact on development.  Negative impact includes disrupted neurodevelopment, social-emotional and cognitive impairment, an increase in risky behaviors, disease, disability, social problems, fragmentation of the self and even early death.  Trauma can also produce perpetual instability such as difficulty with maintaining healthy daily habits and routine, replication of problematic relationships at home, with peers, partners and/or at work and continuous reoccurrence of problematic situations (a.k.a. reenactments). Trauma positive impact (a.k.a. resilience) include increased empathy for others, increased levels of insight and understanding as well as increased levels of internal motivation.  Trauma can also help to enhance the depth of a person's character and/or significantly contribute to the development of emotional strength and fortitude that inspires others around you.  Research on the positive outcomes of trauma is referred to as minimal-impact, emergent, and vicarious resilience.  Trauma can act in a compensatory manner meaning that as functioning diminishes (hypo-arousal) in one area, functioning is increases (hyper-arousal) in others.  You may also develop a strong sensitivity to particular environmental stimuli. Unfortunately, the negative impact of trauma can outweigh or undermine resilience or persist at the expense of continued personal and relational growth when gone unexamined. 

Understanding Trauma

Trauma can be acute (a one-time event such as 9-11) or chronic (living in poverty or the absence of a parent due to imprisonment).  It can be a lived experience or witnessed (a.k.a. vicarious trauma).  Traumatic stresses are events that cause traumatic symptomology but generally has limited longevity and not as severe.   When someone is traumatized or experiences traumatic stress, adaptive mechanisms in our body and brain that are designed to help keep you safe may become overactive causing underactivation in other areas.  The limbic system (the emotional meaning-making system in the brain) typically becomes hyperactive while the prefrontal cortex (logical part of the brain) becomes hypoactive.  The prefrontal cortex can also become hyperactive cause a person to be overly logical with decrease in emotional awareness of self and others.  Our central nervous system (CNS); sympathetic (your brakes) and your parasympathetic nervous system (your acceleration/go) in the body may also become hypo and/or hyperactive as well.  Polyvagal theory expands on these concepts as well as describes how trauma can shut the brain and body down in many ways (e.g., socially, emotionally etc).  Basic biologically driven survival adaptations such as fight, flight or freeze (e.g., failing to have an appropriate response to a relatively simple question; emotional numbness) strategies can dominate functioning and operate automatically/involuntarily and underneath a person's conscious awareness.  

Understanding Trauma Continued

  Trauma can also be transmitted intergenerationally (e.g., emotional abuse of a child) as well as genetically which is referred to as epigenetics.  Trauma can be experienced vicariously (a.k.a vicarious trauma) which is the emotional residue left from indirect exposure to someone else's trauma.  Historically, many minority groups experience historical trauma which is a "collective, cumulative emotional wounding across generations resulting from cataclysmic events" such as the enslavement of African Americans or the Trail of Tears related to Native Americans.  The good news is that responses or adaptations to trauma such as behavioral or social-emotional problems are normal, healthy and appropriate reactions to abnormal circumstances.  Problems occur when these adaptations are no longer as useful as they once were but continue to be applied across unrelated situations and circumstances.  Problems also occur when there is a lack of necessary social change and oppressive and discriminatory systems and ideas persist.  Being informed and advocating for change helps puts you on the pathway to recovery and resilience.    

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE's)

It was discovered that traumatic experiences in childhood, also known as adverse childhood experiences (ACE's), are not uncommon in our society today in a research project known as the ACE's study.  Childhood trauma is one of the leading causes of increases in health risks such as alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide and can lead to early death.  Often, traumatic experiences are (1) normalized meaning they are seen as not being traumatic when they actually are, (2) simply ignored, seen as part of life and go unprocessed or (3) cannot be consciously remembered.  These early and other traumatic experiences are stored within the body and mind and although they may be normalized, unprocessed and not consciously remembered, they continue to operate or play out in a person's daily life and relationships.  One way to assess yourself for these early ACE's is by taking the ACE's questionnaire.  It is likely and appropriate to not have had traumatic experiences not included in the ACE's questionnaire and/or experienced later in life.      

Trauma and the Brain

Trauma causes what is known as toxic stress.  Toxic stress causes the brain to release a neurochemical called cortisol which acts as a neurotoxin in the brain and decreases neuroactivity and neuro-interconnectivity between neurons (the building blocks of the brain), particularly in the prefrontal cortex of the brain which is responsible for more higher level, logical and critical thinking skills.   Toxic stress also dysregulates the central nervous system.  It impairs a person ability to self-soothe or obtain and maintain a state of calm in the body which can lead to the manifestation of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, low impulse control and other mood disorders.  Understanding your brain through a computed tomographic (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be eye-opening.  

Trauma in Families & Organizations

Trauma can have a devastating impact on families and organizations.  Trauma tends to produce disequilibrium in systems (e.g., families and organizations) resulting in (1) communication problems, (2) a lack of basic trust and sense of safety which greatly impedes upon the development of positive and productive relationships, (3) loss in functionality, coherence and stability in managing daily tasks and interactions, (4)  increase in conflict, emotional, psychological and moral harm and a (5) loss of a sense of direction/hopelessness.  Punitive practices and policies assist significantly with traumatizing and re-traumatizing individuals.  Keeping oneself safe emotionally, psychologically and even physical becomes the priority instead of relationship building.  

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Trauma, Recovery & Resilience

It was thought that the brain finished developing when a person reached their late 20's or early 30's.  Advancements in brain research have discovered that the brain is much more plastic, malleable or capable of change (or leaning) over the course of a person's life.  This means that the neurological connections that were deactivated due to trauma have the potential to be reactivated and integrated with other regions (or functions) of the brain such as the limbic system (emotional brain) with the pre-frontal cortex (thinking brain).  Developed and integrated brain functioning results in a more balanced and regulated you.   For groups such as families or teams in an organization, change neurology includes a shift from a toxic climate to one that provides a felt sense of safety, security, respect, reciprocity, and empathy.   Imagine a time from now saying "I use to be depressed quite often," "my anxiety use to be really bad," or "we have come so far as a family/team."     Just as neurons need to be reactivated and integrated, so does family and/or staff members with one another.  


 Change in the brain is complex.   The brain consist of 375 million neurons, 10,000 synaptic linkages between neurons and 2,000 - 3,000 receptors on each neuron.   This is to say that change takes time but constant intentional effort is required.  So let's get started.  Three essential elements to recovery from trauma and the development of resilience are (1) understanding your own attachment style and establishing and maintaining healthy attachments, warm relationship with at least one person you feel understands you (2) self-care (Maslow Hierarchy of Needsself-compassion, self-care assessment); recognizing that we live in a culture obsessed with perfectionism,  and (3) emotional regulation through education, having healthy boundaries and having regular mindfulness and self-soothing practices.  

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